William M. Evarts was born on February 6, 1818, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He was educated at the Boston Latin School and then attended Yale College, graduating in 1837. He continued his studies at Harvard Law School and in the law office of Daniel Lord, and was admitted to the bar on July 16, 1841. From 1851, Evarts practiced law in partnership with Charles F. Southmayd, and in 1859 they were joined by Joseph Hodges Choate. In 1849, Evarts was appointed Assistant United States Attorney for the southern district of New York, a position he held until 1853.
When New York Attorney General Ogden Hoffman died on May 1, 1856, shortly before the appeal in the Lemmon Slave Case was due to be argued before the New York Supreme Court, the New York Legislature appointed Evarts to replace him. The New York Supreme Court affirmed Judge Elijah Paine’s order freeing the slaves, and the State of Virginia appealed to the New York Court of Appeals. Again, Evarts represented the People of New York and, again, he prevailed when the Court of Appeals affirmed the Supreme Court order. The case drew national attention and was widely reported in the press.
During President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, Evarts acted as chief counsel for the President and secured Johnson’s acquittal. Subsequently, from July 1868 to March 1869, Evarts held the office of Attorney General of the United States.
In 1872, Evarts represented the United States in an international arbitration held in Geneva, Switzerland and known as the Alabama Claims. Here, the United States sought and recovered from the United Kingdom reparations for the destruction of Union military ships, commercial ships, and commercial cargo by the CSS Alabama and other Confederate ships that had been built in and sailed from British ports during the American Civil War.
When the Hayes-Tilden Commission was established to resolve the disputed election of 1876, Evarts represented the Republican Party and, in 1877, President Hayes nominated him to be his Secretary of State. In 1881, Evarts was a delegate to the International Monetary Conference at Paris.
As a US Senator from New York from 1885 to 1891, Evarts sponsored the Judiciary Act of 1891 — also known as the Evarts Act — which set up the United States Courts of Appeals.
Evarts led the American fundraising effort for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, serving as the chairman of the American Committee, and was a founding member of the New York City Bar Association, serving as its first president from 1870 to 1879.
William M. Evarts died in New York City on February 28, 1901.
United States Department of State. Office of the Historian. Biographies of the Secretaries of State: William Maxwell Evarts (1818–1901).
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. EVARTS, William Maxwell, (1818 – 1901).